Bonus scene from The City of Brass

Read an exclusive bonus prologue scene to the bestselling The City of Brass, the first book in the spellbinding Daevabad Trilogy, out now in paperback. The second book in the series, The Kingdom of Copper, has just been released in hardback.

 

Muntadhir

“Dhiru.” A hand shook his shoulder. “Dhiru.”

Muntadhir al Qahtani groaned, burying his face in his pillow. “Go away, Zaynab.”

His sister’s small body landed next to his, jolting the bed and sending a fresh throb of pain into his pounding skull. “You look awful,” she said cheerfully. He felt her pluck away the hair plastered to his cheek. “Why are you all sweaty? Were you . . .” She let out a scandalized—and rather thrilled—gasp. “Were you drinking?”

Muntadhir pressed the silk pillow over his ears. “Uhkti, it’s too early for this. Why are you in my room?”

“It’s not that early.” Zaynab’s hands scrabbled around, tickling him, and she laughed as he tried to wriggle away. Abruptly, her fingers stilled, closing over something lying near his head.

“Is this an earring? Dhiru, why do you have a woman’s earring in your bed?” Excitement lit her voice. “Oh, does it belong to that new singing girl from Babili?”

In a moment of utter panic, Muntadhir shot out his hand to sweep the other side of the mattress. Relief swept through him when he found it empty; the earring’s owner must have already left, and thank God for it. That was not something he needed his gossipy, thirteen-year-old sister to see.

He rolled over, squinting in the dark; Muntadhir’s servants all knew to pull the shades before the Emir woke from one of his “evenings,” so Zaynab came to him in blurry pieces: her gray-gold eyes and small dark face, her mischievous smile . . . the intricate gold and emerald jhumka dangling from her fingers . . .

“Give me that.” Muntadhir snatched the earring back as Zaynab giggled. “Could you at least make yourself useful and pour me a glass of water?”

Still grinning, Zaynab bounced off the bed and carefully poured the contents of his blue glass pitcher into a goblet, making a face as she examined it. “Why does this smell funny?”

“It has medicine for my head in it.”

She came back and offered the cup to him gracefully. “You shouldn’t drink wine, akhi. It’s forbidden.”

“So many things are forbidden, little bird.” Muntadhir drained the glass. He wasn’t setting the greatest example for his sister, but at least last night’s drinking had—technically—been in the service of his kingdom.

Zaynab rolled her gray-gold eyes. “You know I hate when you call me that. I’m not a child anymore.”

“Yes, but you still flit around everywhere, listening and seeing things that are not your business.” Muntadhir tapped the top of her head. “A tall bird,” he teased. “You and Ali are going to leave me behind with all this growing.”

She fell back onto the bed. “I tried to see him,” she complained, sounding glum. “Wajed brought the cadets over from the Royal Guard to spar. I went to the arena, and Abba made me leave. He said it was ‘inappropriate,’” she added, flicking a hand dismissively.

Muntadhir was sympathetic. “You are getting older, Zaynab,” he said gently. “You shouldn’t be around all those men.”

Zaynab glared at him. “You smell like wine and have some lady’s earring in your bed. Why do you get to do whatever you want, and I can’t even leave the harem anymore? If we were back in Am Gezira, I’d be able to go out. Our cousins do all the time!”

“But we’re not in Am Gezira, and our cousins aren’t princesses,” Muntadhir said. He didn’t entirely disagree with Zaynab, but he didn’t feel up to debating Daevabad’s archaic traditions with his sister right now either. “Life is different here. People will talk.”

“So, let them talk!” Zaynab balled her hands, her fists punching the quilted blanket beneath her. “It’s not fair! I’m bored. I can’t even go to the market park in the Ayaanle Quarter anymore. That was my favorite place. Amma used to take me there every Friday to see the animals.” Her lower lip trembled, making her look much younger than her thirteen years. “Ali too.”

Muntadhir sighed. “I know, ukhti. I’m sorry . . .” Zaynab looked away and Muntadhir’s chest tightened. “I’ll take you, alright?” he suggested. “No one is going to stop me. We’ll go by the Citadel on the way and drag Alizayd out, too.”

Zaynab’s face instantly brightened. “Really?”

He nodded, giving one of her curls a little tug. “I’ll insist I need a particularly small zulfiqari to keep us safe. As long as you promise to deal with his chattering. He’ll probably subject us to an entire afternoon’s ramble on the history of the market park.”

“It’s a deal!” She smiled again, the grin lighting up her whole face. “You’re a good brother, Dhiru.”

“I try.” He nodded toward the door. “Now will you let me go back to sleep?”

“You can’t. Abba wants to see you.”

Muntadhir’s mood instantly darkened. “About what?”

Zaynab shrugged. “I didn’t ask. He seemed annoyed.” She inclined her head. “You should probably hurry.”

“I see. Thanks for letting me know so quickly.” His sister merely laughed at his sarcasm, and he shooed her away with a sigh. “Go on, you troublemaker. Let me get dressed.”

Zaynab skipped off, and Muntadhir rolled out of bed, swearing under his breath. He hadn’t expected to see his father until this evening; had he known he’d be summoned so early, he would never have had so much to drink last night.

He splashed some rosewater over his face, then rinsed his mouth and ran his hands through his hair and over his beard, attempting to smooth their disarray. He exchanged his rumpled waist-cloth for a crisp dishdasha patterned with blue diamonds, then grabbed his cap and turban cloth and hurried out, winding his turban rapidly as he half-jogged toward the arena. His limbs felt heavy; his abused body did not appreciate the speed at which it was being compelled to move.

When he finally reached the arena, Muntadhir took the stairs leading to the viewing platform with great care, easing one foot ahead of the other, but trying not to appear impaired. Ghassan would not be pleased to see him lurching around like newborn karkadan.

The pavilion that overlooked the palace arena was well-shaded, with drapes of brightly patterned gold and black silk and thickly planted potted ferns rising overhead to protect Daevabad’s royals and their privileged retainers from the city’s merciless midday heat. A half-dozen servants waved wetly gleaming palm fans, dipping the branches into a fountain of enchanted ice before churning the darkened space.

Muntadhir took a deep breath outside the curtained archway, inhaling the smoky frankincense embedded in the fabric. His mouth tasted sour and thick, last night’s wine not entirely gone. Not that it mattered. He could be impeccably turned out, and Ghassan would see through the façade—he always did. His father had a stare that opened a man up and dissected him out as he squirmed. And he was most accomplished at turning that stare onto his eldest son.

At least today he’d be able to counter his father’s inevitable hectoring with some useful information. Steeling himself, stepped through the filmy curtain.

He winced. Light came in dappled rays through the drapes. The chatter of the men on the pavilion, the clash and sizzle of the zulfiqars below, and delicate music coming from a pair of lutes all competed to make his head pound in a dizzying manner. Ahead, he caught sight of his father sitting on a thick brocaded cushion, his attention focused on the arena below.

Muntadhir began to move toward him, but he didn’t get halfway there before a young Daeva man abruptly stepped in front of him. Muntadhir jerked back in surprise, barely keeping his balance.

“Emir Muntadhir! Peace be upon you! I hope you are having a most excellent of mornings!”

The man was dressed in the garb of a priest . . .  or maybe some sort of priest-in-training—Muntadhir was not up to deciphering the intricacies of the Daeva faith right now. A short crimson jacket went to the fellow’s knees, underneath which he wore striped azure and fire-yellow trousers. A cap of the same color sat upon his curly hair.

The effect was bright. Very bright. Far too bright for this particular morning, though there was something about the man’s long-lashed black eyes, overly enthusiastic manner and rural Divasti accent that tugged at Muntadhir’s memory.

The pieces slowly came together in his foggy head. “Upon you, peace,” he answered warily. “Pramukh, yes? Kaveh’s son?”

The other man nodded, grinning. He was actually rocking back and forth on his heels with excitement, and Muntadhir suddenly wondered if he wasn’t the only one who’d had too much to drink.

“Jamshid! That is . . . I am meaning, that is my name,” the other man replied, bumbling the Djinnistani words. He blushed, and even in his preoccupied state, Muntadhir could not help but note that it was a rather fetching effect. “I cannot tell you how thrilled I am to join your service, Emir.” He brought his fingers together in the Daeva blessing, then added a smart Geziri salute for good measure. “You will find none more loyal than me!”

Joining my service? Muntadhir stared at Jamshid in complete confusion for a few heartbeats before his gaze slid to his father. Ghassan wasn’t looking at him, confirmation in Muntadhir’s mind that he’d just become the pawn in some new scheme.

He returned his attention to the bouncing, starry-eyed priest. His eyelashes really were suspiciously long, the effect captivating.

Distracting. Muntadhir cleared his throat, shutting down the thought. There was no damn way this man was joining his service. He feigned a smile, inclining his head to motion Jamshid out of his way. “Would you mind . . .”

“But of course!” Jamshid sprang back. “Should I wait for you outside?”

“You do that.” Muntadhir neatly stepped past him without a backward glance.

Ghassan didn’t look up as Muntadhir approached. His admiring gaze was still locked on the arena below.

“Look at him fight,” his father said by way of greeting. Appreciation and proud awe—two sentiments he rarely directed towards Muntadhir—were clear in his voice. “I have never seen someone so young handle a zulfiqar with such skill.”

There was only one person who’d earn such praise from Ghassan al Qahtani, and as Muntadhir glanced down upon the sand, unease rising in his chest, he spotted Alizayd. His little brother was sparing against a soldier who looked to be twice his height and three times his bulk. Both fighters had their blades aflame, and a group of young cadets were ringed out in a wide circle around them, cheering their royal fellow.

Muntadhir frowned, stepping forward as he caught sight of the greenish haze at the heart of the whipping fire. “That’s not a training blade.”

Ghassan shrugged. “He’s ready to move on.”

Muntadhir whirled on his father. “He’s eleven. Citadel cadets don’t start using live blades until they’re fifteen, if not older.” He tensed, cringing as Ali’s opponent landed a blow against his blade. “He could be killed!”

Ghassan waved him off. “He would not have advanced if Wajed and his instructors did not think him prepared. I spoke to him, as well. He desires the challenge.”

Muntadhir bit his lip. He knew his little brother well enough to know it wasn’t the challenge Ali desired. It was the chance to prove himself. To prove to his fellow cadets—boys taken from hard-scrabble villages in Am Gezira, the ones now shouting him on—that the half-Ayaanle prince was just as good as they were. Better. And child or not, there was no denying the deadly focus in Ali’s eyes when he returned his opponent’s strike, taking advantage of his small size to duck under the man’s arm.

Muntadhir’s future Qaid, his devoutly loyal weapon. The young man who, but for a quirk of timing and politics, could be in his older brother’s thoroughly privileged position.

Troubled, Muntadhir forced himself to look away. “May I sit, Abba?” Ghassan nodded at a cushion, and Muntadhir sank into it. “Forgive my tardiness,” he continued. “I didn’t realize you wished to speak to me so early.”

“It’s noon, Muntadhir. If you didn’t drink until dawn, this wouldn’t seem early.” Ghassan threw him an exasperated look. “You are too young to be so reliant on wine. If it doesn’t put you in an early grave, it will make you a weak king.”

Muntadhir had no doubt which of those possibilities bothered his father more. “I’ll try to temper my intake,” he said diplomatically. “Though last night was not without its uses.”

He fell silent as a servant approached to pour him a cup of coffee from a steaming copper carafe. Muntadhir thanked him and took a long sip, willing the drink to dispel the pounding in his head.

“What uses?” Ghassan prodded.

“I think your suspicions about al Danaf are correct,” he replied, naming one of the northern Geziri governors. “I was out with his cousin last night, and he was making some rather interesting promises to one of my female companions. I’d say they’ve either learned to conjure gold from rocks or they’re skimming from the caravan taxes due to the Treasury.”

“Proof?”

Muntadhir shook his head. “But his wife is from a powerful clan. I suspect they would be none too pleased to learn of the offers he was making to another woman.” He took another sip of the fragrant coffee. “I thought I’d pass him over to you.” It was their usual way: Muntadhir learning what he could by using his charm, and his father stepping in when it was time to turn to different—darker—methods.

Ghassan shook his head, his mouth pressed in a grim line. “That bastard. To think I was considering him for your sister’s hand.”

Muntadhir froze, the coffee cup halfway to his lips. “What?”

“It would be smart to strengthen our relationship with the north. Alleviate some of the tension that has built over the past few decades.”

“You’d give your daughter to a snake with a half-century on her just to alleviate some tension?” Muntadhir’s voice was sharp. “She doesn’t even speak Geziriyya. Do you have any idea how lonely she’d be out there? How miserable?”

Ghassan waved him off the same way he’d waved of Muntadhir’s concerns about Ali’s safety. It was a profoundly irritating gesture. “It was only a thought. I would not do anything without talking to her.”

As though her opinion would matter. Muntadhir knew his father meant no true unkindness . . . but Zaynab was a princess, a powerful piece in the deadly game that was Daevabad’s politics. Her future would be determined based on whatever course Ghassan deemed best for their reign.

“And the reason you had me summoned—does it have to do with Kaveh’s rather loud son thinking that he’s joining my service?”

Ghassan glanced at his son. “He is joining your service. He’s offered himself for the Daeva Brigade. He’ll train at the Citadel with the aim of becoming your personal guard, and in the meantime, he can join your circle. He’s apparently quite the talented archer.”

An archer? Muntadhir groaned. “No. Do not make me take some country noble with aspirations of being an Afshin under my wing. I beg you.”

“Don’t be such a snob.” Ghassan’s gaze returned to the arena as Ali landed another blow. “Jamshid is a temple-educated Daeva noble. I’m sure he’ll fit in with your little retinue of poets and singers well enough. Indeed, I want you to make sure of it.”

Muntadhir frowned at the intent in his voice. “Is something going on?”

“No.” Ghassan’s mouth tightened. “But I think it would be valuable if Jamshid was in your orbit and if he was loyal—truly loyal. It cannot hurt us to have a reliable Daeva so highly placed.” He shrugged. “And were that reliable Daeva to be in the Grand Wazir’s household . . . all the better.”

Muntadhir darted a peek past his father’s shoulder at the surrounding nobles to make sure no one was listening, nervous even though they were speaking quietly in Geziriyya. “Do you suspect Kaveh of something?”

“You sound hopeful.”

Muntadhir hesitated. He had been uneasy with his father’s choice to name Kaveh e-Pramukh as Grand Wazir a few years back, but he’d been too young—and frankly too fearful of disagreeing with his father—to protest.

Ghassan must have sensed his thoughts. “Speak your mind, Emir.”

“I don’t trust him, Abba.”

“Because he is Daeva?”

“No,” Muntadhir replied, his voice firm. “You know I’m not like that. I trust many Daevas. But there are some we will never win over. I can feel it. You can see it. Behind the polite smiles, there’s resentment in their eyes when they think you’re not looking.”

Ghassan’s expression didn’t waver. “And you think Kaveh is one of them? He has done very well as Grand Wazir.”

Muntadhir twisted the silver ring on his thumb. “I think a man as close as he reportedly was to Manizheh and Rustam is a man we should be careful of,” he said delicately. “Abba, there are times Kaveh looks at me . . . it’s like he sees an insect. He never lets it color his actions, but I’d bet coin that behind his walls, he’s calling us sandflies in need of swatting.”

“All the more reason to put someone behind those walls.”

“And his son is the best option?” Muntadhir asked. “You could easily place a proper spy in his household.”

Ghassan shook his head. “I don’t want a spy. I want his son. I want someone I can use, someone Kaveh knows I can use, and a person he wouldn’t dare risk.”

Muntadhir knew what his father was truly saying. It was a dynamic he’d seen play out before. The sons of political opponents taken into the Citadel: ostensibly for honorable careers, but also so there would be a ready blade at their throat should their parents step out of line. Wives “invited” to serve as companions for the queen, then detained in the harem when suspicion fell upon their husbands.

The memory of Jamshid’s eager smile sent prickles of guilt across his skin. “Do you intend to harm him?” he finally asked.

“I hope not. You have a talent for dazzling people. There are courtiers who would spill blood to be one of your companions.” Ghassan’s eyes narrowed. “So, take that bright-eyed, aspiring Afshin, and make him your closest friend. Pour on the charm, the riches, the women . . . whatever it takes. Show Kaveh’s son the paradise his life could be and make damn sure he knows his fortunes are tied to ours. It should not be difficult, Muntadhir. He’s the overly honorable type.”

Muntadhir considered this. Knowing his father, he supposed he should be pleased Ghassan was asking him only to befriend Jamshid, not poison him or frame him in some sort of scandal. “That’s it? Make him one of my companions?”

There was a flicker in his father’s eyes he couldn’t decipher. It was brief, but it was there. “I would not be averse to you encouraging his tongue to spill about his life back in Zariaspa. About what he knows of his father’s relationship with the Nahid siblings.”

Muntadhir ran a finger around the hard edge of his coffee cup. Whether it was the wine still churning in his belly or his father’s words, he’d lost his taste for it.

“Understood. If that is all . . .”

Ali’s cry drew his attention. Muntadhir turned just in time to see his brother’s zulfiqar go spinning out of his hand.

Relief flooded through him. He doubted Ali wanted to lose, but the sooner his little brother was done playing with that fiery, poisoned death blade, the better.

Except Ali’s opponent didn’t stop. He charged after him, kicking his brother square in the chest. Ali fell hard, sprawling in the sand.

Muntadhir shot to his feet in outrage.

“Sit,” Ghassan said flatly.

“But, Abba—”

Now.”

Muntadhir sat, his skin burning as Ali’s opponent stalked after him. The other cadets were frozen. His brother seemed suddenly—horrifically—young and small; a scared little kid scrambling backward, his terrified gray eyes darting between the looming bulk of his opponent and the spot where his zulfiqar had landed.

Men died trying to master the zulfiqar. The training was ruthless, meant to separate out those who could properly wield and control such a destructive weapon from those who couldn’t. But surely not here. Not the king’s son, not before his own eyes.

“Abba,” Muntadhir tried again, tensing as Ali barely ducked the next strike. Flames whipped around the warrior’s copper sword as he lunged. “Abba, stop this. Tell him to stand down!” His voice broke in fear.

His father said nothing.

Ali’s expression abruptly changed; determination sweeping over his features. He grabbed a handful of sand and hurled it in his opponent’s face.

The man jerked back, his free hand going to his eyes. It was enough time for Ali to hook his foot around the other man’s ankles, knocking him off balance and sending him tumbling to the ground. Ali drew his khanjar in the next moment, ramming it into the hand holding the zulfiqar. He did it again and then again, the brutal movement drawing blood from the other warrior.

His opponent dropped the zulfiqar.

Muntadhir let out a shaky breath of relief. Despite his father’s order, he’d risen back to his feet, drawing close to the platform’s edge. He must have been visible for Ali glanced up, meeting his eyes.

In the space of time it took for his little brother to give Muntadhir a trembling smile, his opponent had drawn his own khanjar.

He smashed the dagger’s handle across Ali’s face.

Ali yelped in pain, blood pouring from his nose. Muntadhir let out a cry as the whistle blew, marking the end of the match.

His hand dropped to his own khanjar: one he intended to put through the throat of the man below immediately.

Ghassan grabbed his wrist, jerking him close. “Stop.”

“I’m not going to stop! Did you see what he just did?”

“Yes.” His father’s voice was firm, but Muntadhir didn’t miss the dart of his eyes back to Ali before they settled on his eldest’s face. “The match had yet to be called. Alizayd shouldn’t have lost focus.”

Muntadhir wrenched his arm free. “Shouldn’t have lost focus? They were both disarmed! A man does that to your son and you say nothing?”

Anger flashed across Ghassan’s face, but it was a weary sort of anger. “I would rather see his nose broken than hear of his death on some faraway battlefield. He is learning, Muntadhir. He’s going to be Qaid. It is a violent, dangerous life, and neither you nor I do him any favors by softening his training.”

Muntadhir looked at his little brother. His white sparring uniform was now filthy, stained by scorch marks, blood, and the arena’s dirty sand. Ali pressed a grimy sleeve to his nose to stem the bleeding as he limped over to retrieve his zulfiqar.

The sight broke Muntadhir’s heart. “Then I don’t want him to be Qaid,” he burst out. “Dismiss him from the Citadel. Let him enjoy whatever is left of his childhood and then let him have a normal life.”

“He’s never going to have a normal life,” Ghassan said softly. “He is a prince from two powerful families. Such people do not have normal lives in our world.”

Muntadhir said nothing, feeling sick as Ali re-sheathed his zulfiqar, the blade looking too big against his small body.

Ghassan joined him at the pavilion’s edge. “It is not for Alizayd alone that I do these things,” he chided, not ungently. “You have good political instincts, Muntadhir. You are charming, you are an excellent diplomat . . .” He put a hand on Muntadhir’s shoulder. “But you are neither an ambassador, nor a wazir. You are my successor. You need to harden your heart, or Daevabad will crush you. And you cannot risk that, my son, not for a moment. The city rises and falls with its king.”

Daevabad comes first. Muntadhir’s lip curled. It was his father’s mantra. The thing he said when brutally putting down those who dared to dissent.

When ruining the lives of his young children.

Things Muntadhir would one day be expected to do.

Nausea welled inside him. “I . . . I should take Jamshid to the Citadel.” It was the first excuse he could think of.

Ghassan lifted his hand. “Go in peace.”

“Upon you blessings.” Muntadhir touched his heart and brow, backing away.

Jamshid was still there, and he was no less exuberant the second time, leaping to his feet as though someone had touched him with a hot coal when he saw Muntadhir approaching. “Emir!”

“Please stop that.” Muntadhir rubbed his head. He had no desire to go to the Citadel. Despite his promise to his father, the only thing he felt like doing was drinking away their conversation, and the memory of Ali’s pained cry and Zaynab’s sad eyes. But his usual cup companions were likely still hungover in their beds, and Muntadhir knew his own weaknesses enough to know he was in no state to drink alone.

He narrowed his eyes at Jamshid. “Does your priesthood forbid wine?”

Jamshid lifted a thick eyebrow, looking baffled. “No?”

“Then you’re coming with me.”

[no ornament]

Jamshid strolled the length of the carved wooden balcony. “This is an extraordinary view,” he admired. “One can see all of Daevabad from here.”

Muntadhir made a grunt of assent from his cushion but didn’t move. He didn’t feel like looking down at the city he’d be expected to one day tyrannize, even if it was beautiful.

Jamshid turned around, leaning against the railing. “Is there something the matter, Emir?”

“Why would you ask that?” Muntadhir snapped, annoyed by the question.

“You look a bit sad.” Jamshid shrugged. “And I’d heard you were more talkative.”

Muntadhir stared at the man in disbelief. People did not ask if the Emir of Daevabad was sad. Not even his closest companions spoke so freely. Ah, they would have noticed his reticence surely, but they wouldn’t dare question it. Instead, they’d compose poems to praise him or offer up diverting tales, all while discretely beginning to water down his wine.

But Muntadhir couldn’t find it in himself to be annoyed. After all, palace etiquette probably wasn’t taught at the Daeva’s Grand Temple. “Tell me of yourself,” he said, ignoring Jamshid’s question. “Why did you wish to leave the priesthood? Are you no longer a believer?”

Jamshid shook his head. “I’m still a believer. But I didn’t think shutting myself up with dusty texts the best way to serve my people.”

Now that was intriguing. “And your father agreed? Kaveh seems so orthodox.”

“My father is in Zariaspa on family business.” Jamshid’s knuckles paled as he tightened his grip on the wine cup. “He doesn’t know.”

“You left the Grand Temple and joined the Royal Guard without your father’s permission?” Muntadhir was astonished…and a bit impressed. That was not the way things were typically done among Daevabad’s powerful noble families, and the man before him didn’t seem the rebellious type. At all.

Jamshid looked amused by his reaction. “Does your father know everything about you?”

There was a spark in the other man’s dark eyes that, combined, with the question, sent a sharp buzz down Muntadhir’s spine. He drew up, his gaze flickering over the other man. Under different circumstances, he might have wondered if there had been an undercurrent of intent lingering in those words. He might have been tempted to find out; with a flash of the smile he knew had broken a fair number of hearts in Daevabad, and an invitation to sit.

But very few people in Daevabad looked at Muntadhir al Qahtani with such directness . . . and even fewer spoke to him with the kind of genuine warmth that emanated from Jamshid. He cleared his throat, trying to ignore the blood rushing under his skin. “My father knows everything,” he found himself saying.

Jamshid laughed, a rich sound that sent Muntadhir’s stomach fluttering. “I suppose that’s true.” He left the balcony, coming closer. “That must be difficult.”

“It’s terrible,” Muntadhir agreed, suddenly having a hard time looking away from the other man. He wasn’t a great beauty but there was something pleasing about his winged brows and slightly old-fashioned mustache. Still in his Temple attire, Jamshid looked as though he might have stepped out of one of the chipped paintings of the Nahid Council that clung to the palace’s ancient walls.

Jamshid sat without invitation and then quickly stood back up, looking embarrassed. “Forgive me . . . am I allowed? I know there’s all sorts of protocol.”

“Sit,” Muntadhir urged. “Please. It’s nice to get a break from protocol.”

Jamshid smiled again. It seemed to be a thing he did easily—Muntadhir supposed people who grew up without having to worry about ridiculous court etiquette and its related political intrigue did so. “My father would disagree. He’s always worried we’re showing our ‘terrible’ country ways.” He made a face. “You’d think after a decade in Daevabad, I would have lost my accent.”

“I like your accent,” Muntadhir assured. He took a sip of his wine. “Why did you leave Zariaspa?”

“My father wanted me educated at the Grand Temple. Or so he says.” He drank from his cup, his dark eyes fixing on the sky. “I suspect it was easier to start fresh here.”

“What do you mean?” Muntadhir asked, his curiosity getting the better of his urge not to follow his father’s orders so immediately.

Jamshid glanced at him, surprise in his dark eyes. “My mother . . . I assumed you knew.”

Muntadhir winced. He did know, and his words had been clumsy. “Forgive me. Your mother died when you were young, correct? I didn’t mean to bring it up.”

“I don’t mind,” Jamshid said quickly. “Truly. I don’t get to speak about her with anyone. My father refuses.” His expression clouded. “She died when I was born, and they weren’t married. I think she might have been a servant, but no one will tell me anything more about her. They’re too ashamed.”

Muntadhir frowned. “Why? You have your father’s name. Is it that much of an issue?”

“For Daevas, yes. My people are obsessed with tracing their roots back on every which side.” He drank back the rest of his cup. “It determines what we do, who we marry . . . everything.” He spoke lightly, but Muntadhir didn’t miss the flash of pain in his face. “And half of my roots are missing.”

“Maybe that just means you’re free to write your own destiny. Maybe it’s a gift.” Muntadhir said softly, thinking of his brother and his sister.

Jamshid stilled, his eyes locked on Muntadhir’s, his expression serious. When he finally spoke, his voice solemn. “I had heard . . .” He paused. “That you tended to get overly poetic when drunk.”

Muntadhir’s eyes went wide as heat rushed to his face. Had Jamshid just . . . insulted him? Outside his family, no one dared speak to Daevabad’s emir with such disrespect. They probably feared the king would execute them.

But as Jamshid’s eyes suddenly danced with mirth and a laugh escaped his lips, it was not anger Muntadhir felt. He didn’t know what he felt; there was a strange lightness dancing in his chest that was entirely unfamiliar.

Even so, he tried to muster an indignant glare. “Your father is right to worry over your manners,” Muntadhir shot back. “I was trying to be nice, you ass!”

“Then I am blessed indeed to join your service.” Jamshid smirked, and Muntadhir realized his father’s cold assignment was going to be much more difficult than he had anticipated. “You’ll have plenty of time to teach me.”

 

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